Charting a course in song: The musical dedicated to the humble A to Z

Phyllis Pearsall, the fanciful creator of London’s most famous street atlas, is now the subject of a musical

Ticket-holders heading for a new musical in south London this month will probably check the theatre’s whereabouts first: and while the young and dextrous may consult their phones and tablets, many, fittingly, will cling to their A-Z, the street guide that revolutionised travel in the capital when it first appeared in the 1930s. Its compiler, Phyllis Pearsall, was an artist who combined a dogged accuracy with a creativity that also informed her painting and a tendency to embellish her biography. Pearsall’s life story has now been put into song by playwright Diane Samuels and composer Gwyneth Herbert, with Peep Show’s Isy Suttie portraying her over several decades. And with geography, history, art and fantasy on their side, the team behind The A to Z of Mrs P have been having fun. 

Pearsall used to say that her artistic skills prompted the street-mapping project. Her upbringing had taken her all over Europe, and she had married a friend of her brother Tony, living in Spain and Paris, but left him abruptly in Venice, after eight years of marriage. Settling alone in London, she took commissions to paint pictures of the homes of the wealthy, to get by. “Her version of the A-Z story was that [it all started when] she got lost looking for a house she had been asked to paint,” says Herbert, who is best known as a singer-songwriter. “It’s a great story, but it isn’t true,” adds Samuels, and the two dissolve into laughter, which happens a lot: they share a gift for merriment that is fed by Mrs P’s eyebrow-raising mythology. In reality, the driver behind the London A-Z was Phyllis’s father, a Hungarian Jew who had founded the map publisher Geographia.

Far from being the first street guide in the world, the A-Z copied a Manhattan guide. And while Mrs P claimed to have trudged up and down each of London’s 23,000 roads as groundwork, in fact she conducted a great deal of research in local records offices. Her innovations may have saved lives, however. She pioneered the inscribing of house numbers on maps: fire and ambulance crews looking for  No 2 no longer found themselves outside No 502, and speeding the wrong way.

When Herbert and Samuels visited the company that still produces the A-Z, they learnt about its enlightened founder, amid paintings by her, hung from floor to ceiling. “Phyllis ran the company on the John Lewis model,” says Herbert. “There are still men of retirement age working in the company who have been there since leaving school at 15.”

Samuels takes up the tale: “She made it a charitable trust. All the workers got the benefits of the profits.”

Phyllis was on the move again, this time in the opposite direction from that of her father, a less inclusive and more traditional boss. Latterly, she also chose to make a woman her companion for life. Increasingly interested in these family dynamics, Samuels was much helped by Tony, and by his daughter, Mary West, who told Herbert and Samuels about her aunt’s tendency to attend exhibitions of her own paintings in national costumes, on one occasion bowling up in full flamenco gear.

People in transit also occupied Samuels in her best-known play to date, 1993’s Kindertransport, which is currently being revived on a nationwide tour. It tells of young German children hastily bundled off to Britain before the outbreak of the Second World War, sometimes to kind homes, but also, in some cases, to misery and abuse.

As with the story of Mrs P, Samuels found there was mythology to dismantle, including the notion that it was preferable for children to be sent away from hostilities than to stay in cities at risk, with their parents. In reality, she says, if children are asked whether they would rather be with their mothers and fathers, or in a safe place far away, they invariably say they would rather die with their parents than survive without them.

Herbert, although a songwriter almost since she could walk, long had an inbuilt resistance to musicals (with the exception of West Side Story): they “conjured up saccharine,” she says. But her narrative song cycle The Sea Cabinet, commissioned by Aldeburgh Music last summer, and the resulting album, showed her moving in the direction of the form. Auspiciously, The A-Z of Mrs P song “Lovely London Town”, which surfaced early in the evolution of the show, has already won a musical theatre songwriting award.

The A-Z of Mrs P is the first major musical by a female lyricist and composer team, and Herbert and Samuels are aware of the importance of that landmark, in a tradition dominated by male partnerships from Lerner and Lowe to Lloyd Webber and Rice. Unlike those relationships in which the lyricist presents a completed book to the composer and leaves them to get on with making the music fit, the pair worked organically, building the show by pushing round a cast of little plastic figures, borrowed from a Wizard of Oz set.

And which one was Phyllis? Dorothy, of course.

‘The A-Z of Mrs P’, Southwark Playhouse, 21 Feb-29 Mar (southwarkplayhouse.co.uk); ‘Kindertransport’ (kindertransport.co.uk) tours to 29 Mar.

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